Boris Johnson is right – having bigger prisons will lead to fewer crooks


WHEN Britain’s prisons are full to bursting and violent crime is going through the roof, prime ministers face a simple choice.

They can choose to lock up fewer criminals and let more of them out early, which does at least make space in the prison wings for the very worst offenders — machete-wielding thugs, for example.

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HM Prison Berwyn in North Wales opened in 2017 and is the largest UK prison[/caption]

AP:Associated Press

Boris has announced a £2.5billion investment in 10,000 new prison places[/caption]

OR they can build more prisons, with more cells, to accommodate everyone who deserves to be behind bars.

That way, the shoplifter who’s been caught for the third time in a month gets banged up, rather than set free to create yet more havoc.

There are no prizes for guessing which policy the public prefers.

Boris Johnson’s £2.5billion investment in 10,000 new prison places, announced yesterday, will be welcomed by most people.

It marks a sea change in the Government’s approach to law and order.


Because the last Justice Secretary, David Gauke chose the first option.

No doubt with the best of intentions — and less money available — he unveiled plans to scrap short sentences altogether earlier this year.

These brief stints behind bars of six months or less weren’t doing enough to reduce reoffending, it was argued.

So it would be better not to have them at all, dealing instead with these criminals in the community.

It might be cheaper to do this.

And it’s certainly true that reoffending rates for such offenders remain scandalously high.

But it failed to address two problems.

First, the impact of letting these people out on the victims of crime, who are disproportionately the poorest in society.

Because prisons aren’t really about protecting those with high hedges and sophisticated burglar alarms, who can generally look after themselves.

They’re about protecting those who live in disadvantaged communities blighted by crime every day.

If there’s a drunken bully or persistent thief on your street, sometimes the only respite you get is when they are in jail, even if it is only for a few weeks or months at a time

If there’s a drunken bully or persistent thief on your street, sometimes the only respite you get is when they are in jail, even if it is only for a few weeks or months at a time.

Secondly, the Gauke plan assumed that the system for dealing with offenders in the community is fit for purpose.

Bluntly, that isn’t the case — as any magistrate will tell you.

They wouldn’t resort to giving prison sentences so often if there was a decent alternative.

The Prime Minister has recognised that he won’t be popular with “left-wing criminologists” for being tough on crime.

But it’s exactly the right approach.

You only have to look at the annual report from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, published last month, for a glimpse of the sordid state of our prison system.

Mr Clarke is not known for mincing his words.

“Broken windows, unscreened lavatories in shared cells, vermin and filth should not feature in 21st-century jails,” the scathing report said.

It speaks of “squalid cells” and high levels of self-harm.

No one is saying prison should be like a trip to Butlin’s.

But nor should it resemble something out of Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea.

With the prison population rising, these new prisons can’t be built soon enough.

They should replace the country’s very worst jails, which tend to be crumbling Victorian dungeons.

Some are falling apart to the point that inmates can get drugs “Deliveroo-style” by drones to their broken windows

Some are falling apart to the point that inmates can get drugs “Deliveroo-style” by drones to their broken windows.

The think tank I work for, Policy Exchange, has published research showing that “the key determinant of the decency, safety and effectiveness of a prison is not its size, but its age”.

The evidence shows that modern, bigger “hub” prisons could be the answer – like the vast new HM Prison Berwyn in North Wales, the largest UK prison.

Boris Johnson has also ordered an urgent review of the early release of violent and sexual offenders.

This is good news — even if there is a risk of increased overcrowding in the short term.

The review should examine those convicted of extremism too.

Anjem Choudary, a dangerous recruiting sergeant for IS, was sentenced to five and a half years in prison in 2016 — then let go in October 2018. Why on earth was this allowed to happen?

When I worked at the Ministry of Justice, I saw the place he was being held.


He was alongside one of the most notorious killers in modern British history.
Unlike that evil murderer, he is now out and about. This is a mistake.

There is one last improvement that the Government should focus on.

PA:Press Association

Releasing Anjem Choudary in October 2018 was a mistake[/caption]

Not nearly enough “purposeful activity” is going on behind bars — in the form of work, training and education — and this is at the heart of the reoffending problem.

When Boris Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill was Home Secretary, he spoke of the need for a “desire and eagerness to rehabilitate” on the part of the state.

Churchill, ho had been a prisoner of war as a young man, knew that jail could be a soul-destroying place if it offered no chance of redemption.

This must also be the PM’s mission — to make sure prisons are places where criminals can be turned into law-abiding citizens.

Sitting on a bunk watching daytime TV won’t do that. Education will.

It’s only that, delivered effectively, that will lead to a fall in crime and — eventually — a smaller prison population.

  • Will Heaven is Director of Policy at the think tank Policy Exchange.

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